Early weaning of calves an option during periods of drought and excess moisture

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Source: Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives

Beef cows are amazing mothers, especially during periods of drought or excess moisture when pasture quality and/or quantity are limited. The cow will sacrifice her body condition and ultimately next year’s reproductive performance by continuing to produce milk even when pasture quality and/or quantity are too low to support her basic maintenance requirements. Early weaning of the calves can alleviate some of the nutritional pressure on the cow, allowing her to remain on pasture longer, improve her body condition and ensure high rates of reproductive performance.

Normally, beef calves are weaned at six to seven months of age. However, several studies have indicated that calves weaned as early as two months of age can perform well in terms of gain and overall performance when fed well-balanced diets which meet the animals’ needs.

Early weaning can occur when calves are between one to five months of age. When pasture is scarce due to drought or excess moisture, weaning at three to five months of age is a viable option to lower the cow’s requirements and put less pressure on the pasture. Overstressed pastures not only take longer to recover but the plants are less vigorous, therefore allowing undesirable plants to invade your pastures.

Even though early weaning is a viable option, there are several management decisions a producer must consider:

  • Once weaned will the calves be sold directly off the cow, backgrounded or will you retain ownership?
  • What is the availability of feed if the calves are not sold?
  • Calves should be castrated, dehorned and vaccinated 10 to 14 days prior to weaning. Consult your local herd veterinarian.
  • Offer creep feed to the calves prior to weaning to allow them to adapt.

Advantages of Early Weaning

  • Lower nutritional requirements for cows/heifers on pasture
  • Improved body condition and subsequent reproductive performance of cows and first calf heifers
  • Extended grazing period on pasture (allows for improved grazing management)
  • Improved efficiency of gain for early weaned calves

Disadvantages of Early Weaning

  • Higher labour requirements
  • Facilities and feed required for early weaned calves
  • Early weaned calves can be more susceptible to stress and related health problems, especially if proper nutrition and management practices are not adhered to
  • Early weaned calves may have lower carcass weights or become fatter at lighter weights

Overall, early weaning of beef calves is a viable option particularly during periods of low quality and quantity of feed on pasture.

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